Out of India: A Raj Childhood

Two images: a tiny boy clings to his mother�s hand on the deck of a sinking ship, torpedoed trying to escape to India from wartime England�Seven years later, the same boy, a child of the Raj playing in a monsoon-flooded landscape, watches in anxiety and wonder as a cobra sails serenely through the water on a parallel path.

Michael Foss divided his childhood between two worlds: the cold, grey, despondent austerity of wartime Britain, and the penetrating but confusing light of India in the period between the war and the Partition that marked the end of the Imperial Raj. After the misery of the war, spent among grudging English relations or in the harsh hands of a convent school, India in all its strange and fretful glory burst upon the child, leaving an impression never to be lost: the vital, stinking, hot, noisy, crowded streets; the calm grace of Moghul architecture and the overwhelming humanity of Hindu temples; the bombastic Victorian buildings, monumental follies that masked British power; squalor and extreme poverty mixing with self-conscious majesty and pomp, the cunning of ancient culture beneath the veneer of Western practice. In the midst of all this, the composed life of the British Raj continued, the futile rituals of an idealized and long-vanished England maintained in cantonment and hill station � mess night and coffee morning, church and boarding school, cricket and riding to hounds � even as ethnic and religious violence erupted around them.

The British, the author notes, lived on but not in India. �Our rules for living were not their rules,� he writes, in this wry, affectionate reflection on a childhood spent between two continents, two civilizations, two versions of history.

Michael Foss was born in 1937 in Murree, India (now Pakistan), where his father, an officer of the Indian Army, was stationed. He, his mother and older brother were stranded in England during the Second World War, after being torpedoed in the North Atlantic in 1940 while trying to return to India. They eventually returned to the sub-continent in January 1944, but left for good on Partition in 1948, two days after Gandhi was assassinated. Subsequently educated in England and America, he had travelled very widely, and after a spell as a lecturer at an American university settled in London and took up writing full time. His books include a novel, �Looking for the Last Big Tree�, as well as non-fiction works such as �Tudor Portraits�, �The Founding of the Jesuits�, �Undreamed Shores�, �Beyond the Black Stump�, �On Tour: The British Traveller in Europe�, �Poetry of the World Wars�, �Gods and Heroes: The Story of Greek Mythology�, �The World of Camelot�, �Celtic Myths and Legends�, �People of the First Crusade�, and �The Search for Cleopatra�.